Monday, June 29, 2015

Garden Shed Technology

All I can say is that it's a good thing it's going no where near the sea!

The above picture shows the current progress of the full-size Noah's Ark  being constructed at the "Answers in Genesis" theme park. The line taken by the thin curving piece of wood on the extreme  right appears to show the shape of the hull in cross section. This cross-section is worth comparing with the cross section of Nelson's ship HMS Victory:

HMS Victory: This  is what a sea-worthy  X-section looks like!

Now it's probably true that HMS Victory as a warship was over-engineered, but even so look at the relative thickness of the hull  in comparison with its size: The Hull was about 2 feet thick for a boat 186 feet long by 51 feet wide; the internal floor beams are also very thick.  Compare this with the Ark's 500 foot length and 86 foot width - in volume much, much bigger than Nelson's ship.  Since weight goes up with the cube of linear dimension I would expect a genuine sea-worthy Ark to have a cross section that reflects this - that is, the amount of wood thickness employed in cross section to be proportionally greater than that of HMS Victory*.  Now, it's true I 'm not a ship engineer who has done the calculations but to my eye AiG's "Ark" looks decidedly flimsy: As an out-sized garden shed designed to support several floors of visitor exhibits and keep the weather out it's no doubt fine, but it looks far too spindly to stand the buffeting of a catastrophic global flood. This is no genuinely scientific or  technical demonstration of the Ark's plausible construction, but rather an Ark-shaped exhibition centre.  My guess is that the "hull" of AiG's Ark will be covered in a thin facade of planks and that's highly symbolic because in the final analysis that's what this "Ark"  project is all about: namely, a matchstick facade sufficient to give visitors the impression of being inside the Ark.  If AiG want an authentic testimony to their belief that the Ark sailed the high seas of a huge global flood they will have to increase the cross sectional thicknesses considerably; but I suppose that would be far too expensive. All in all it looks as though it's a monumental folly and an embarrassment to the Christian faith; This thoroughly sham construction will simply convey the message that Christianity is all about the ability to believe in fairy tales

Relevant links:

8/7/15: Panda's Thumb has a post on this subject here:

Noah according to the gospel of toytown.
* Compare the way the cross section of dinosaur bones increases in relation to their increasing volume: small animals can walk on spindly legs: dinosaurs that weigh in at around 70 tons have extremely thick legs. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Disunited States of America

American Storm in a Tea cup? Let's hope so.

North America isn't very much at one with itself nowadays. Some right wingers still seem to be fighting a version of the anti-taxation war of independence.  I'm not just thinking of the Tea Party, but also the Sovereign Citizen movement and "Operation American Spring": See below:

This is not to say that I would have supported the British Crown's war against the American settlers; My own church (Norwich Central Baptist Church) supported the American revolutionarys in those days. That's no surprise because the Norwich Baptists of the day had also had enough of oppressive government interference.  (See here). But in spite of  the fact that the American revolution had radical Whig roots, today, ironically, that war has come to symbolize gun toting right wing America! The Whig aversion to the centralised power of an absolute monarchy  has morphed into something weird in America!

And now we find the North-South fault line also starting show up: Here's someone taking  down to the old Confederate flag after the recent Carolina massacre of black-church members in a racially motivated attack.

According to the BBC article where I found this picture There has been a social media campaign to remove the flag. But I think these southern guys below want it put back up:

The BBC caption on this picture is: There have been rallies to support the use of the flag.  

Right-wing extremists have an unfortunate tendency to send up the USA. Obama, however, rises above the mean minded right-wingers, fundamentalists and cranky conspiracy theorists with statesman like grace:  All I can say is thank God for a dignified Christian president.  Let's also thank God for the black church who faced a massacre of innocents: Their response to barbarianism was a pinnacle of civilisation; if only there was more of it the world.

Relevant Link:

Friday, June 19, 2015

Shrouded in Mystery (I bet that one’s been used before)

This mystery is far from wrapped up!

(Note: see 21 June postscript)

As a bit of light relief I thought I’d make a few comments on this BBC article on the Turin Shroud:

Even if one accepts the 1989 radiocarbon 14 dating which puts the shroud between about 1260 and 1390, the shroud is, as the article says,  “a deeply puzzling object”.

The radiocarbon dating is consistent with the first historical reference to the shroud which the BBC article gives as 1357 in Lirey, France. (Although Wikipedia thinks 1390 is more certain). I’m hardly an authority on medieval art or techniques, but it strikes me that for the shroud to be a work of art of considerable technical expertise we would have to push the artifact well into the Renaissance; it is far too early for that. In any case the article suggests that the material evidence for the shroud being a painting is slim. That leaves us with various mechanical and/or natural means of generating what seems to be a very realistic looking, technically correct even, picture of a crucified man. In this connection the article goes on to consider some possibilities. Viz: Various chemical reactions in the cloth catalyzed by the presence of a real dead body or perhaps it was created by skilled medieval technologists who knew enough to make a crude photo of an effigy or may be even of a crucified dead body. But it turns out there are problems with all these explanations.

If we assume that the cloth is the genuine article and we have no inhibitions about invoking fairly exotic processes in its formation, there is still a question in my mind:  When the image was formed presumably the cloth would have been wrapped tightly round the body of Christ. I suppose one really needs to do some experimentation with real shrouds and know something about first century Jewish funerary practices, but off the top of my head I would have thought that this wrapping would so distort the receiving medium of the cloth that the image would hardly look like two photographic plates taken front and back!* But if one is willing to invoke exotic processes in the formation of the image, no doubt the imagination can soon fix this little query!

And finally an irony: Aficionados of evangelical atheism, of course, won’t countenance even a hint of doubt about the natural or human origins of the shroud image.  But guess who else detests this very Catholic artifact of devotion and is thoroughly committed to the idea that it is a fake?  Take a look at an extract from a letter to the May Premier Christianity magazine in response to an article on the Turin Shroud the month before:

John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ head was covered by a cloth separate from the linen Shroud.  As the Turin Shroud is in one piece it cannot be genuine. It has no place in a true engagement with the risen Christ. The Shroud has been shown by many historical tests to be a 14th century fake, dating from a time awash with similar artifacts. The pieces of “evidence” in the article sidestep those conclusive proofs. The article is a disingenuous attempt at promoting credulous superstition. That leaves with me with real concern that Premier Christianity has put its name at risk.

Now it may well be the shroud is a fake, but I would certainly not want to argue along the lines of this naive piece of fundamentalist prejudice: It doesn’t follow that the presence of a head cloth entails the absence of a full length shroud – one would have to delve into the history of the funerary practices of the time before one could use this head cloth reference as a basis to assert with any level of confidence that “it cannot be genuine”. Moreover, head cloth or no head cloth it would all very much depend on the process of image formation, a process which if it involved the “supernatural” would introduce so many possibilities that we've no knowing what could happen under such circumstances! The BBC article appears not to be aware of those “conclusive proofs” that the letter writer claims exist and in any case is science ever absolutely conclusive? And where are those "similar artifacts" of the period comparable with the Shroud's apparent expertise?

I’m not quite sure what evangelical tradition this fundamentalist is coming from: Fundamentalists who style themselves as “Reformed Christians”, who loathe the Catholic Church and are still fighting the Reformation would certainly not accept that such a “heretical” institution is the custodian of the real shroud of Christ. But a Reformed Christian is unlikely to write to a charismatically flavored magazine like Christianity. So perhaps this person is what I call a reformo-charismatic. But whatever: Notice that as is the wont of fundamentalism we find juxtaposed with the superlatives of high devotion (like “true engagement with the risen Christ”) the utmost spiritually condemning terms; in this case accusations of hypocrisy, dishonesty and the promoting of superstition!  This is why I don’t get on with fundies (and some evangelicals) – even when their conclusions may well be right I still don’t agree with them. This is mainly because they are so arrogantly certain of their opinions and so ready to accuse more liberal Christians of heresy and blasphemy! What’s wrong with a bit of self-skepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism? Everything in the fundamentalist's eyes: To criticize self is to criticize one's opinions and to criticize one's opinions is to criticize the Bible where those opinions are claimed to originate; and that is tantamount to criticizing God himself! Such intellectual vice!

* This query extends to all explanations that posit the formation of the image whilst the body was wrapped; but it is only a query: May be laying the body on one half of the shroud and then gently draping the other half over the body generates the sort of relation between shroud and body we are looking for.

Postscript (21 June)

So what's my opinion of this object: Real or Fake? That could be another false dichotomy as I shall explain. A less loaded question is: Is the shroud from the first century or the late middle ages? Although I have a measure of open mindedness about this puzzling object, on balance I think it originates from the late middle ages. This is because I find the coincidence of the radiocarbon dating with the historical references fairly compelling: If a miraculous first century image formation process somehow had the effect of distorting the radiocarbon dating it seems unlikely that it would contrive such a coincidence.  Alternatively, if the cloth has become contaminated in someway (e.g. with repairs) during its passage through history would this have the likely effect of returning a radiocarbon dating that coincided with the date of its first historical reference?

There is also an internal consistency question that arises if one is prepared to accept that the shroud is a product of exotic paranormal processes. If such processes are available is it just possible that the image could conceivably have been impressed on a late medieval cloth in response to the psyche of the medieval mindset, a mindset that as we know was obsessed with relics? After all, there are claims of paranormal images having been imprinted upon photographic plates, floor tiles and even human bodies. In fact, perhaps even God himself arranged for this to happen in order to give post black death medieval devotion something to hook on! It it is also conceivable within the paranormal paradigm that God inspired skilled medieval workmen to do his bidding! Who knows? Of course, these sorts of hypotheses are unlikely, but if you are prepared to accept the miraculous in the formation of the image, these candidates should be weighed and rejected or selected.

I would love to think the object is the real thing, but as I have said "real or fake" may be inappropriate categories expressing an implicit valued judgement. Perhaps the Catholic church has the right idea in not commenting one way or the other. If the shroud is a 14th century creation (as opposed to a "fake") it still remains a very singular object and a very realistic depiction of the end result of crucified suffering. Whether it be a work of art, a medieval technological feat, or perhaps even a  record of some 14th century paranormal event, it nevertheless is so remarkable in its execution that like any really good piece of art it inspires; and that can't be bad - unless you are an evangelical atheist or an artless fundamentalist Christian!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Addressing Dependency in Sub-Saharan Africa

I first posted on the subject of African dependency on Western wealth here:
The paper  I promised in that post can be seen here:
The pictures below come from a Spiegel Online article by development aid veteran Kurt Gerhardt. This article can be read here: 

Spiegel Online says: Trucks belonging to the German aid agency GTZ in Liberia. Aid is often presented as a kind of gift, with no strings attached. Critics say that such a model does not work. "These perpetual gifts have made parnters into beggars," writes development aid veteran Kurt Gerhardt.
Western managers oversee African project workers. Westerners still have an air of superior patriarchs.  Spiegel Online says "Expertise can be helpful, as here in Adama, Ethiopia. But foreign aid workers should not get in the way of local initiative."

The man on the right in the suit may be an official African aid partner who is likely to be materially benefiting from the relationship with Western aid organisations. Spiegel Online says: ".... some say that we need to get away from the idea the more money necessarily means more help."

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Algorithms, Searches, Dualism and Declarative Computation. Part 4

If conventional evolutionary theory and OOL are to work then configuration space must look something like this, with thin strands of survivability/stability/self-perpetuation permeating configuration space: Forget fitness surfaces!

This is the last in the series where I am looking at a post by Joe Felsenstein and Tom English (FE). In their post FE critique a paper by Intelligent Design gurus Dembski, Ewert and Marks (DEM).  The other parts of this series can be seen here, here and here

In their critique of DEM’s paper FE construct a simple toy model of evolution. This model they call the “Greedy Uphill Climbing Bug” (GUCB) – basically it is an algorithm which always moves in the direction of greatest “fitness” – that is in the direction of greatest slope of the “fitness surface” or “fitness field”, a field which is conjectured to pervade configuration space. The point they make from this model is simple and valid: It shows that a smooth fitness field (a smoothness which is a likely consequence of the laws of physics as Joe Felsenstein points out), when combined with a GUCB algorithm, entails a lot of “active information”. In fact FE find that even a white noise fitness field also implies a lot of “active information”.  “Active Information” is a term used by DEM to refer to the inherent up front informational bias of a search, a bias which means that the search does better than random chance.

Admittedly FE’s model is not a very realistic; but as FE state it needn’t be realistic to make their point: It simply shows that fairly basic mathematical conditions can supply a considerable level of active information. However, in spite of FE’s work I have to confess that I have doubts about the efficacy of the current model of evolution as a generator life. To see why let’s take a closer look at the GUCB algorithm.

FE put their GUCB algorithm in a configuration space implied by a genome of 3000 bases. At any given starting position the GUCB senses the direction of greatest slope (i.e. greatest fitness) and then moves in that direction. Now, how is this apparently simple algorithm realised in terms of real biology? Well, firstly in order for the GUCB to determine which direction to move it must first put out feelers in no less than 3000 directions. In real biology it is claimed that this is not done by systematically working through the 3000 cases, but by the algorithmically inefficient trial and error steps of random mutation. Once a mutation enters a population it must then be tested by the complex selection processes which determine structural viability, environmental fitness and competition. If it survives this test – which may take several generations of progeny –  then the organism can move on; if it fails, the process must start all over again with a new randomly selected mutation. So, it is clear that successfully moving in any direction at all  in configuration space entails, in real biology, a very large number of computational operations and trials.

Now, I’m not going to contradict the contention that perhaps given large tracts of geological time real biology is capable of moving forward in this laborious random-walk trial and error process: I’m not a mathematical biologist so I won’t make any claims on that score. But one thing is very clear to me, and it should be clear to anyone else: Viz, because the stepping process consumes so much time the structure that is doing the stepping must be stable and endowed with sufficient persistence and self-perpetuation in the first place. That is, although the structure may not be of the “fittest” quality, it must nevertheless be fit enough to make the next step in configuration space. If the structure wasn’t at least this fit it wouldn’t survive long enough to move anywhere in configuration space.  So, implicit in the GUCB model is the assumption that the points in configuration space are all fit – that is, capable of survival long enough to step through configuration space.

It is the property of stability/survivability rather than fitness that begs the big 64 million dollar question. Namely, is configuration space populated with enough stable self-perpetuating structures to provide the pathways on which the GUCB can move?  For the GUCB to move around in configuration space the class of stable structures must be a continuously connected set.  That is, for standard evolution to work the self-perpetuating structures in configuration space must form a reducibly complex set*; that is, working, stable functionality cannot be isolated into concentrated islands. If the set of self-perpetuating structures does exist then I envisage it to look something like a kind of thin spongy structure that stretches across configuration space (See picture at the head of this post).

It was the question of whether this spongy structure actually exists in configuration space which I posed in my configuration space series, a series whose last post can be picked up here. In the second part of this series I wrote:

Axiom 2 tells us that the set of living structures is tiny compared to the set of all possible non-self-perpetuating structures. This fact is an outcome of axiom 1 and the nature of disorder: If living structures occupy the mid regions between high order and high disorder then the logarithmic nature of the vertical axis on the LogZ-S graph will imply that disordered configurations are overwhelmingly more numerous. This raises the question of whether there are simply too few self-perpetuating structures to populate configuration space even with a very thin spongy structure; in fact the spongy structure may be so thin that although mathematically speaking we will have an in-principle reducible complexity, in terms of practical probabilities the structure is so tenuous that it may as well not exist!

Of course I have no analytical demonstration addressing this question and I doubt any one else has: How can we count the class of stable structures? For a start it very much depends on the complex environment those structures are in; in fact those structures are themselves part of that environment and so we have a convoluted non-linear feed-back relationship linking structure to environment. I suspect, therefore we are dealing with something here that is computationally irreducible.

But be all that as it may, my intuitions are that my question is answered in the negative: That is, the number of stable self-perpetuating structures is far too small to populate configuration space sufficiently to connect itself into a spongy structure that sprawls extensively across that space. If this conjecture is correct then it would make conventional evolution and OOL impossible. It was this feeling that resulted in my terminating the configuration space series and returning to early ideas that I started expressing publicly in my Melencolia I series, a series I continue to pursue.

In this appendix I’ll assume that the class of stable self-perpetuating structures are grouped into a sponge like structure that stretches extensively across configuration space. If this is the case then we can see that evolution/OOL is less about differentials in fitness than it about survivability and stability. In the sponge model of configuration space evolution and OOL are envisaged as traversing the sponge with a kind of random walk based diffusional motion. However, it is possible that in some places the random walk is directionally biased, implying that certain parts of the sponge represent “fitter” structures than other parts of the sponge. In effect, then, a “fitness field” would pervade the structure of the sponge; this would mean that some areas of the sponge act like potential wells attracting the diffusion motion. However, it is equally possible that in other places there is no bias and the evolutionary/OOL diffusion is neutral; this is not to say that evolution is then without direction; as I have made clear before the sponge structure permeating configuration space acts as tramlines directing evolutionary diffusion. This latter point seems to be something that atheists don’t always understand. See the comments section of this post where I took up this question with atheist Chris Nedin. He appears to have absolutely  no inkling of just how profoundly directional his concept of evolution is required to be; frankly, he seems to be pulling the wool over his own eyes. See also:

Footnote: Why I repudiate the de-facto IDists
* It follows then that an irreducibly complex set of structures is a highly disconnected set. This definition of irreducible complexity is different from the definition used by the de-facto Intelligent Design community, who once again seemed to have screwed up: See the link below about why their definition doesn’t work:
Let me get the following complaint off my chest: When I first came to this debate I had high hopes of the de-facto ID community. After all, they were in the main reasonable and moderate evangelicals like William Dembski. Moreover, I’ve always agreed with their premise that the information burden of our cosmos isn’t trivial and that this presents an enigma. However, I have become increasingly disillusioned with them: They have screwed up on various technical issues like irreducible complexity and the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Their so-called explanatory filter encourages dualistic God-of-Gaps theology. They are too uncritical of fundamentalism and in some cases harbour unreasonable religious fanatics in their midst. They also have a default well-right-of-centre political stance which I can’t support. They are right-wing and fundamentalist sympathizers and this seems to be bound up with their disdain of government funded academics, a group that the fundamentalists, for obvious reasons, also hate.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

IDists! Here's another fine mess they’ve gotten us into!

 The above is a schematic of the Intelligent Design community’s explanatory filter, an epistemic proposed by ID guru William Dembski for detecting the presence of Intelligent Design. Other versions of this epistemic can be found on the internet but they all have multiple issues.  In fact from a theological point of view the worst problem of the filter is that it prompts a God vs. Nature dualism when the intelligence is identified with God. As I have remarked many times before if one runs through this procedure and finds that life can, after all, be generated by “natural” law and disorder processes then the filter might lead one to conclude “Life isn’t designed”, a conclusion which ultimately threatens theism. As a consequence this epistemic has helped create strong polarization of the debate: The ID community stake all on the belief that “natural processes” (i.e. physics) simply can’t generate life and they use bogus arguments to prove this to themselves: See for example their misuse of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, a point of view that they are committed to defend at all costs.  Conversely, atheists have a huge stake in finding ways whereby OOL and evolution might work without recourse to "black box" intelligent activity filling any gaps.

As well as theological problems I have a couple of smaller niggles with Dembski’s procedure: Firstly, his separation of law and chance; in my experience physics tends to form one seamless law and disorder (L&D) package.  Secondly, I’m growing more and more uncomfortable with the IDist dichotomy of intelligence vs. L&D processes. After all, it appears that the functioning of the human mind has a considerable point by point conformity with neural operations, operations which in large measure at least follow known L&D principles. This polarization of L&D and intelligence into two separate categories may be fundamentally flawed.

The dichotomies championed by the ID movement influences the whole way they think about the subject. Their parceling “intelligence” into a separate black box category seems to be the reason why some of them, of late, have been digging themselves into another hole: Viz they are declaring that it is sufficient for their purposes to simply identify an object to be the product of intelligence with little or nothing being claimed about the character of the intelligence involved. To my mind this is clearly an error which potentially undermines the whole ID project: Since it is necessary to have at least some inkling about the nature of intelligence in the first instance in order to identify and anticipate its works, this strategy entails a contradiction.  But in actual fact one finds that attempts by the ID community to use their ideas to make predictions do depend at least on a modicum of implicit understanding about the nature of the intelligence involved!. In particular, the prediction by IDists about there being no junk DNA is posited on the basis of an assumption about how an intelligence may prefer to work.

However, although I believe that Dembski’s broad brush epistemic procedure falls over when it is invoked in disciplines like theology, philosophy, and the nature of intelligence, it is nevertheless true that something like it does apply in many everyday situations where we try to determine whether or not an event or object has an “artificial” or “natural” origins. Moreover, the epistemic is also relevant to archeologists and imaginary scenarios like 2001 Space Odyssey. But in an attempt to fix some of the filter's problems and improve its robustness and durability in more nuanced disciplines I have designed this procedure:

In the above procedure we get hold of some “object” to be investigated (top box) and then pass it on to a process called “Get Object Origins”. This latter process may well contain something that looks like Dembski’s explanatory filter, a procedure which attempts to explain an object either in terms of L&D or intelligent agency – but you will notice that I make no explicit reference to this dichotomy because it is not as sharply defined as the ID community make out. Also, in the flow diagram above things don’t end there. We go onto to create an “origins object” and then after outputting the results we ask the question is this object complete? By that I mean that some decision has to be made as to whether the explanatory activity has found an object which is deemed to be a complete explanation of the cosmos. I’m in no way suggesting here that explanatory completeness is something that is either easily attributed or can be done so without controversy – this decision box clearly hides plenty of philosophical cut and thrust. However, if ever the explanatory project is deemed complete the process halts. If on the other hand the epistemic procedure doesn’t halt the “origins object” is submitted back to the “Get object origins” process which is in affect now attempting to get the origins of the origins.  This means that if OOL and evolution should, within acceptable scientific standards, be demonstrated to be a product of known physics that physics may then itself be submitted to origins research. I emphasize "may" here: Who knows; if biology is shown to be a product of physics some people may experience no philosophical unease making them feel there are further questions to be answered. For theists on the other hand this would be unacceptable: They will likely feel that even the most complete L&D physical regime calls for more origins research. Moreover, some atheists may also be inclined to resubmit their physics to origins research, perhaps hypothesizing some kind of L&D multiverse.  So, in short my procedure caters for both philosophically minded atheists as well as theists.

The belief that the detection of the presence of intelligent agency can be sharply distinguished from questions about the nature of the intelligence concerned appears to be another of the ID community’s false dichotomies. But this dichotomy does not sit well with the comments of one of their own gurus, Granville Sewell. I applauded Sewell’s comments and made reference to them in this blog post.  In that post I suggested that Sewell was starting to open up what these other IDists treat as a black box in which sits some kind of localised alien homunculus.  In contrast Sewell is starting to discover the consequence of the fact that intelligence is not an intensively located homunculus, but an extensive property spread over more than one subsystem, and which probably involves, I submit, non-locality. The problems introduced by thinking there is a sharp (and artificial) demarcation between intelligence and L&D is once again foisting upon theists a Pandora’s box of problems.

Theists like me were once sitting comfortably, but then along came.....

Below is my enhanced explanatory filter expressed in C-like pseudo code.  I have made it recursive in order to give it an elegant look.

Fundamental = FALSE;

FindObjectOrigins(Object)                                                                 /*Submit object being researched to function */
OriginsFlag;                                                                                        /* Flag for  origins type */
OriginObject;                                                                                      /* Data about origins */

    If (Fundamental)  then Halt;                                                           /* Halt if object is fundamental */

    OriginsFlag = GetOriginsOfObject(Object, OriginsObject& );     /*Is object generated by ID or L&D?*/

    Output(OriginsObject, OriginsFlag);                                              /* Output results */

     If (CompleteObject(OriginsObject))                                          /* Is object a complete explanation? */
                        Fundamental = TRUE;                                               /* If so flag as fundamental */

     FindObjectOrigins(OriginsObject);                                              /* Find origins of origins object */

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Algorithms, Searches, Dualism and Declarative Computation. Part 3

Is evolution a declarative process?

In the last part of this series I described a recent paper from ID gurus Dembski, Ewert and Marks (DEM for short) as seen through the eyes of atheists Joe Felsenstein and Tom English. As I said in part 1 the debate here is not so much about DEM’s (correct) mathematical results but more about what they mean for evolution.

In their analysis of DEM’s paper FE make some cogent points. One point in particular struck me as not only significant but also as highly ironic:

Are “searches” search algorithms?
Mathematicians and computer scientists working on optimization are accustomed to investigating the properties of algorithms that try to maximize a function. Once an algorithm is given, its behavior on different functions can be studied mathematically or numerically. DEM do not make this separation between the algorithm and the function. Their definition of a “search” includes both the algorithm and the function it encounters. As an evolutionary algorithm may have different results on different fitness surfaces, in their argument the same evolutionary model can be two different “searches” if it encounters two different fitness surfaces. As we have noted, even “searches” that do not try to maximize the fitness are included in their space.

The point FE are making here is that the optimisation problem can be thought of as distinct from the search algorithm. In effect they have resolved the evolutionary question into two parts. That is, the problem statement and the underlying imperative algorithms which are used to search for a solution to the problem. This looks very much like a declarative computational paradigm where the problem statement defines a mathematical constraint, a constraint which then determines a search space. The search space is then traversed by very basic and routine imperative algorithms.

This is all very ironic. Declarative computation is teleological in as much as the problem statement effectively defines the sought for end result. In declarative computation the problem statement generates the basic imperative search algorithms needed to find a solution. But conceiving evolution in this teleological way is not going to sit very comfortably with an atheistic world view which is likely to see the laws of physics as goalless imperative processes that relentlessly march on regardless of end results. But the irony is that DEM have come to the rescue of the atheists! They have conceived a very general model that dissolves these potentially teleological considerations into an entirely imperative process! But this is no doubt inadvertent on DEMs part; in fact it is a side-effect of the North American Design community’s explanatory filter epistemic, an epistemic whereby imperative natural processes are very much seen as the anti-thesis of intelligent intervention. See for example my blog series on Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community; that series can be picked up here:

In that series of posts I consider a web article by ID guru V J Torely where it is clear that nothing like a declarative paradigm so much as enters his head. Torely, like DEM, sees “natural processes” as mindless imperative objects that don’t naturally generate anything very significant. Hence DEM have simply created a piece of otherwise valid mathematics that fulfils their expectations: Viz: They show that the big problem for imperative processes as conceived by DEM is that these processes have such tiny probabilities of returning “small target” results. Thus, the only apparent solution, seemingly, is to provision imperative systems in advance (i.e. front load them) with sufficient information to considerably enhance the chances of the search generating results in realistic times. This “front loading” does the job of what DEM call “active information” – whatever that means.

It is to the question of the provision of “active information” that FE turn. They consider how this “active information” could be present in “natural systems”.  FE’s strategy is to invent a very simple toy model of “evolution” and show that it has “active information” built into it. As they point out, their model isn’t meant to be realistic but rather simply shows how fairly elementary mathematical conditions are sufficient to introduce large to enormous amounts of “active information”. To this end they introduce the concept of the Greedy Uphill Climbing Bug (GUCB). This is a “greedy” algorithm which always moves in the direction of greatest fitness in configuration space. FE have even done a simulation where this “bug” moves around in a configuration space where the fitness surface is a white noise surface  – even this case has a lot more“active information” than DEM’s base line “random search”.  Moreover, as Joe Felsenstein has pointed out in his previous post on this subject (see here) the laws of physics very likely considerably smooth out the fitness surface thus adding even more “active information”.  To quote FE:

Dembski and Marks would consider these smooth fitness surfaces to have large amounts of “active information”, because they lead to much greater success at reaching any target which includes the genotypes of highest fitness. So these two effects do not require any intervention of a Designer, just the presence of genotypes that have fitnesses, and the action of ordinary laws of physics. Some, quite possibly all, of Dembski and Marks’s “active information” is present as soon as we have genotypes that have different fitnesses, and genotypes whose phenotypes are determined using the ordinary laws of physics.

OK, so physics very plausibly adds a lot of so-called “active information”. But this begs some big questions: Is that information enough?  And, of course, just where does this information come from? That latter question is in effect the same as asking the question “Where do the laws of physics come from?”. Joe Felsenstein, having demonstrated to his satisfaction that the laws of physics are evolution friendly passes this big question onto the physicists.  But before we even get to that question there are also some cutting questions I would like to raise in connection with the general ideas at the heart of the model FE use.  I hope to look at all these questions in the next part.

Before I finish this part I would like to note that FE have implicitly used the explanatory filter epistemic with its inbuilt dichotomy of God Intelligence vs. Natural Forces. That is, having provided a plausible case for an evolutionary friendly cosmos FE’s conclusion is that natural processes, rather than “intervention of a Designer”, are sufficient to produce life. This is the theological weakness that I have repeatedly  identified with the North American ID argument (as has Ken Miller); for if it can be plausibly shown that known so-called “natural processes” can generate life, the ID community’s explanatory filter with its inbuilt dualistic assumptions becomes a lethal weapon against theology; in short that epistemic cuts lethally both ways! It might be OK for archaeology or 2001 Space Odyssey but it's bad for theology!

FE’s plausible case for “active information” effectively residing in the laws of physics also shows up the right-wing* Christian community’s misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics. As we saw in this post right-wing Christians make no allowance for the kind of “active information” that FE have attempted to identify in “natural processes”. As we know life, using the “active information” of natural genetics, annexes and organises increasing amounts of matter without violating the 2nd law. If FE are right, then in evolution it is the laws of physics which impose this organising “active information” – and if isn’t the laws of physics that have the requisite “active information” then perhaps some other Divine provision does. However, once again we see that the Christian-right are barking up the wrong tree in a very embarrassing way.

FE’s thinking is plausible although it does in my opinion have some salient problems which I hope to pin point next time. Nevertheless they have at the very least succeeded in exposing the weaknesses of the kind of ID thinking with which they take issue.

* I use the term "right-wing Christian" here to identify a loose alliance of right wing evangelicals, fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists. Generally they have a strong tendency to fall on the right of the political spectrum and in particular they usually oppose the academics of the public sector.

Some relevant links: